In conversations with active-duty Marines and with former Marines who now work full-time in public schools, some lessons to improve our teaching force became clear. 

Fallujah probably isn’t the first place you’d go for tips to improve our teaching force.  It was the scene of some of the toughest fighting during the Iraqi War. But the city’s successful recapture by the United States highlighted why the Marines Corps is such a respected fighting force. 

In that battle, as in others, 19- and 20-year-old Marines were trusted to make extraordinary split-second decisions in an environment more dangerous and confusing than most of us can imagine. 

improve our teaching forceYet back home in American schools, we still haven’t figured out how to improve our teaching force or how to give our teaching force – whose members are college graduates, more than half of whom have advanced degrees – autonomy and accountability in a far less dynamic workplace.

In school districts and state capitals, we veer between giving teachers insufficient training and oversight and giving them almost no autonomy at all.

The Marine Corps isn’t perfect.  A few of its members have been accused of atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Still, it’s undeniable that the Marines are highly effective at their core mission of maintaining a nimble and lethal fighting force.

Here are five tips to help improve our teaching force:

1. Give people autonomy, but training too
The Marines have the most junior force of any of the armed services: 39% of Marines are Privates or Lance Corporals.

By comparison 19% of the Army, 20% of the Air Force, and 24% in the Navy are at the lowest ranks. The Marines also have the highest ratio — by a substantial margin — of enlisted personnel to officers of any of the armed forces. So they’re not top-heavy.

This could be a recipe for disorganization or worse, but instead a Marine fire team of four can operate largely on its own, if necessary, while carrying out its commander’s intent. It can do this because of extensive training.

“The battlefield is always chaotic and the information is hazy at best and unreliable,” says Steve Scarfe, who was a Major in the Marines and is now an assistant high school principal in Illinois.

“You have to develop implicit communication,” he says. “We’ve trained together so we’ve learned how each other thinks and can make decisions without immediate feedback” when communication becomes difficult or impossible.

Scarfe points out the obvious parallel to schools where an overall framework must be balanced with ongoing decision-making by teachers – and where communication should be far easier than on a battlefield.

In practice, however, explicit communication, especially around tough issues like performance and leadership, is rare. Training for the deeper teamwork Scarfe is describing is almost non-existent. So while educators talk about empowering front-line practitioners, the Marines actually do it.

2. If it really matters, do it
“Every Marine a rifleman” isn’t just slick sloganeering. Once a year, Marines have to go to the rifle range to re-qualify for their marksmanship ratings.

The motto also reflects a deep commitment to mission-critical skills as well as a philosophy that if a group of Marines needs an extra hand, any other member of the Corps is prepared to jump in and help.

Contrast that with education, where vital skills – such as teaching ability or subject matter expertise – are still secondary to seniority. And school districts rarely do everything possible to get the best teachers where they are needed most.

The Marines are also big on aligning training with standards. They have standards for everything they do—from hair cuts to heavy weapons—that flow from their core mission to be a fast, amphibious assault force. Everyone from Marine Privates to Marine Generals knows what the standards are and why.

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Andrew J. Rotherham is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a non-profit organization working to improve our teaching force and improve educational outcomes for low-income students, and he writes the blog Eduwonk.

Rotherham previously served as Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy during the Clinton administration and is a former member of the Virginia Board of Education.

Rotherham is on the board of directors for the Indianapolis Mind Trust, is Vice Chair of the Curry School of Education Foundation at the University of Virginia, and serves on the Visiting Committee for the Harvard Graduate School of Education.